Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

08 NOVEMBER, 2013

The Science of Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect

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“The self is more of a superhighway for social influence than it is the impenetrable private fortress we believe it to be.”

“Without the sense of fellowship with men of like mind,” Einstein wrote, “life would have seemed to me empty.” It is perhaps unsurprising that the iconic physicist, celebrated as “the quintessential modern genius,” intuited something fundamental about the inner workings of the human mind and soul long before science itself had attempted to concretize it with empirical evidence. Now, it has: In Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect (public library), neuroscientist Matthew D. Lieberman, director of UCLA’s Social Cognitive Neuroscience lab, sets out to “get clear about ‘who we are’ as social creatures and to reveal how a more accurate understanding of our social nature can improve our lives and our society. Lieberman, who has spent the past two decades using tools like fMRI to study how the human brain responds to its social context, has found over and over again that our brains aren’t merely simplistic mechanisms that only respond to pain and pleasure, as philosopher Jeremy Bentham famously claimed, but are instead wired to connect. At the heart of his inquiry is a simple question: Why do we feel such intense agony when we lose a loved one? He argues that, far from being a design flaw in our neural architecture, our capacity for such overwhelming grief is a vital feature of our evolutionary constitution:

The research my wife and I have done over the past decade shows that this response, far from being an accident, is actually profoundly important to our survival. Our brains evolved to experience threats to our social connections in much the same way they experience physical pain. By activating the same neural circuitry that causes us to feel physical pain, our experience of social pain helps ensure the survival of our children by helping to keep them close to their parents. The neural link between social and physical pain also ensures that staying socially connected will be a lifelong need, like food and warmth. Given the fact that our brains treat social and physical pain similarly, should we as a society treat social pain differently than we do? We don’t expect someone with a broken leg to “just get over it.” And yet when it comes to the pain of social loss, this is a common response. The research that I and others have done using fMRI shows that how we experience social pain is at odds with our perception of ourselves. We intuitively believe social and physical pain are radically different kinds of experiences, yet the way our brains treat them suggests that they are more similar than we imagine.

Citing his research, Lieberman affirms the notion that there is no such thing as a nonconformist, pointing out the social construction of what we call our individual “selves” — empirical evidence for what the novelist William Gibson so eloquently termed one’s “personal micro-culture” — and observes “our socially malleable sense of self”:

The neural basis for our personal beliefs overlaps significantly with one of the regions of the brain primarily responsible for allowing other people’s beliefs to influence our own. The self is more of a superhighway for social influence than it is the impenetrable private fortress we believe it to be.

Contextualizing it in a brief evolutionary history, he argues that this osmosis of sociality and individuality is an essential aid in our evolutionary development rather than an aberrant defect in it:

Our sociality is woven into a series of bets that evolution has laid down again and again throughout mammalian history. These bets come in the form of adaptations that are selected because they promote survival and reproduction. These adaptations intensify the bonds we feel with those around us and increase our capacity to predict what is going on in the minds of others so that we can better coordinate and cooperate with them. The pain of social loss and the ways that an audience’s laughter can influence us are no accidents. To the extent that we can characterize evolution as designing our modern brains, this is what our brains were wired for: reaching out to and interacting with others. These are design features, not flaws. These social adaptations are central to making us the most successful species on earth.

The implications of this span across everything from the intimacy of our personal relationships to the intricacy of organizational management and teamwork. But rather than entrusting a single cognitive “social network” with these vital functions, our brains turn out to host many. Lieberman explains:

Just as there are multiple social networks on the Internet such as Facebook and Twitter, each with its own strengths, there are also multiple social networks in our brains, sets of brain regions that work together to promote our social well-being.

These networks each have their own strengths, and they have emerged at different points in our evolutionary history moving from vertebrates to mammals to primates to us, Homo sapiens. Additionally, these same evolutionary steps are recapitulated in the same order during childhood.

He goes on to explore three major adaptations that have made us so inextricably responsive to the social world:

  • Connection: Long before there were any primates with a neocortex, mammals split off from other vertebrates and evolved the capacity to feel social pains and pleasures, forever linking our well-being to our social connectedness. Infants embody this deep need to stay connected, but it is present through our entire lives.
  • Mindreading: Primates have developed an unparalleled ability to understand the actions and thoughts of those around them, enhancing their ability to stay connected and interact strategically. In the toddler years, forms of social thinking develop that outstrip those seen in the adults of any other species. This capacity allows humans to create groups that can implement nearly any idea and to anticipate the needs and wants of those around us, keeping our groups moving smoothly.
  • Harmonizing: The sense of self is one of the most recent evolutionary gifts we have received. Although the self may appear to be a mechanism for distinguishing us from others and perhaps accentuating our selfishness, the self actually operates as a powerful force for social cohesiveness. During the preteen and teenage years, adolescent refers to the neural adaptations that allow group beliefs and values to influence our own.

The rest of Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, which dives deeper into this trifecta of adaptations and their everyday implications, is absolutely fascinating — necessary, even. Get a teaser-taste with Liberman’s TEDxStLouis talk based on his research and the resulting book:

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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07 NOVEMBER, 2013

Albert Camus on Happiness, Unhappiness, and Our Self-Imposed Prisons

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“Those who prefer their principles over their happiness, they refuse to be happy outside the conditions they seem to have attached to their happiness.”

“For the first time in history,” Bertrand Russell asserted in reflecting on the impact of the Industrial Revolution, “it is now possible … to create a world where everybody shall have a reasonable chance of happiness.” Indeed, we’ve pounced on that chance with overzealous want: Ours is a culture so consumed with the relentless pursuit of happiness, its secrets and its science, that it layers over the already uncomfortable state of unhappiness a stigma of humiliation and shame. But unhappiness can have its own dignity and can tell us as much, if not more, about who we are than happiness. That’s precisely what French philosopher and Nobel laureate Albert Camus considers in a portion of his private writings, collected in Notebooks 1951–1959 (public library).

In a meditation on Oscar Wilde’s relationship with art, Camus considers the notion of sorrow, the exorcism of which is one of art’s 7 therapeutic functions, and adds to history’s finest definitions of art:

[Oscar Wilde] wanted to place art above all else. But the grandeur of art is not to rise above all. On the contrary, it must blend with all. Wilde finally understood this, thanks to sorrow. But it is the culpability of this era that it always needed sorrow and constraint in order to catch a glimpse of a truth also found in happiness, when the heart is worthy. Servile century.

In a 1956 letter to a hospitalized friend, Camus explores how body and mind conspire in sorrow and happiness:

The solidarity of bodies, unity at the center of the mortal and suffering flesh. This is what we are and nothing else. We are this plus human genius in all its forms, from the child to Einstein.

No, … it is not humiliating to be unhappy. Physical suffering is sometimes humiliating, but the suffering of being cannot be, it is life. … What you must do now is nothing more than live like everybody else. You deserve, by what you are, a happiness, a fullness that few people know. Yet today this fullness is not dead, it is a part of life and, to its credit, it reigns over you whether you want it to or not. But in the coming days you must live alone, with this hole, this painful memory. This lifelessness that we all carry inside of us — by us, I mean to say those who are not taken to the height of happiness, and who painfully remember another kind of happiness that goes beyond the memory.

Sometimes, for violent minds, the time that we tear off for work, that is torn away from time, is the best. An unfortunate passion.

Camus later revisits this osmosis between the physical and the metaphysical in a poignant reflection on our self-imposed prisons of unhappiness:

It is not true that the heart wears out — but the body creates this illusion.

Those who prefer their principles over their happiness, they refuse to be happy outside the conditions they seem to have attached to their happiness. If they are happy by surprise, they find themselves disabled, unhappy to be deprived of their unhappiness.

“All true happiness, as all that is truly beautiful, can only result from order,” Benjamin Franklin wrote, and yet, as Camus so stirringly reminds us, order itself, when worshiped too blindly and rigidly, can consume our fragile chance of happiness.

Complement Notebooks 1951–1959 with the story of Camus’s unlikely and extraordinary friendship with pioneering biologist Jacques Monod.

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07 NOVEMBER, 2013

The Interpretation of Leonard Bernstein’s Dreams

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Freud, Jung, sexual identity, and the creative process.

A friend — a rather rational and highly intelligent friend — recently shared with equal parts self-consciousness and delight that she had had her chart, as in astrological chart, done. (Done, no less, by a Buddhist-monk-turned-startup-entrepreneur who also happens to be a hobbyist astrologer — one of those details that captures our era’s peculiarity so poetically.) The incident stood out as a particularly poignant embodiment of the curious allure mysticism and pseudoscience hold for even the most intelligent among us — perhaps a testament to our restlessness and longing to resolve the burden of life’s ambiguities, however essential those might be to creativity, with concrete directives and tangible answers.

In fact, a number of history’s most celebrated minds succumbed to this very human tendency: George Eliot had her head cast taken by a leading phrenologist, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fancied himself a psychic, and Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin spent a good portion of their lengthy love affair bonding over their shared obsession with astrology. But hardly any luminary demonstrates the deeper psychological needs people seek to address through such mystical pursuits than legendary composer Leonard Bernstein (August 25, 1918–October 14, 1990), who was intensely interested in the interpretation of his dreams, believing they held the answers to his deepest and most conflicted questions.

In the early 1940s, plagued by anxieties over his career and in a state of confusion over his sexual identity as he found himself falling in love with men at a time when homosexuality was classified as a mental illness and regarded as an offense as unamerican as communism, Bernstein started seeing a psychoanalyst named Marketa Morris, whom he nicknamed “The Frau.” A few years later, he turned to the Jungian psychoanalyst Renée Nell, who studied with Carl Jung himself, hoping the interpretation of his dreams would put his waking restlessness at peace. Bernstein’s correspondence with the two women is revealed in the magnificent and long-awaited anthology The Leonard Bernstein Letters (public library), for which editor Nigel Simeone painstakingly trawled through 10,000 letters to cull the 650 epistolary treasures included in the book.

Leonard Bernstein with Aaron Copland in Bernardsville, NJ

In June of 1942, Bernstein writes to Aaron Copland — by then one of the most popular voices in American classical music and young Bernstein’s greatest love — about his sessions with Marketa Morris and the opposing forces of his reluctant desire to “fix” his homosexuality and his irrepressible love for Copland:

The Frau-sessions have borne some fruit. Little green fruit, of course, but fruit. The main thing being that I can’t kid myself any more. Kid myself, that is, into thinking that I have a closeness with someone when it is all really wishful thinking, or induced, or imagined, or escape from being alone with myself, etc. And so, one by one, all the old relationships tend to fall away; and I find that I’m not at all interested in seeing anybody — really — whereas I used to run and see anybody at the drop of a hat. This all makes the trouble harder, of course; since I still hate being alone, and yet don’t want anyone in particular. And that’s where you come in; cause you’re the only one that persists and persists, come hell or high water. And I love you and miss you as much as I did the first month I knew you, and always will. Believe that, Earth-Scorcher, it’s so real. And then this wish for closeness always manifests itself in a sexual desire, the more promiscuous the better — giving rise to experiences like being taken (by Pfb [Bowles], of course) to a Bain Turc (or is it Turque?) and seeking out the 8th Street bars again. But I’m not attracted any more to any one I find there, and it’s just as horrible as if I hadn’t gone at all. One of those unpleasant stages forward.

In the 1930s and 1940s, many psychoanalysts believed that homosexuality was a disorder that could be “cured” with proper “treatment.” In this 1947 letter, “the Frau” responds to a dream Bernstein had sent her and touches on the subject, while reminding Bernstein of the vital difference between productivity and presence in one’s life and creative process:

Lenny,

I got your dream letter. You know that it is quite impossible to give a written interpretation to a dream — and more so a dream without interpretation.

Why am I living in Brooklyn?

Jimmy’s Restaurant in Greenwich Village

Why another cab to go to Brooklyn? What’s about 289?

It’s getting dark at four o’clock in the afternoon?

Switches putting on lights upstairs and not downstairs? What’s the difference between up and downstairs in this beautiful, big, expensive house?

What about the two girls blocking the exit from behind your desk?

Write me if you feel like — besides the dreams! For instance why cannot you relax and just simply not compose? Remember, you had the idea that adjustment to homosexuality could facilitate heterosexuality! Couldn’t adjustment to relaxation constitute a capacity of creative work? Of course not pretending to relax only.

Bernstein also had his personality “read” by the noted harpsichordist and pianist Rosalyn Tureck who, like our Buddhist-entrepreneur friend, had a side-interest in astrology. While she presents it with the necessary grain of salt, she does make a special note of the g-word:

Dear Leonard,

At long last, here is your “personality analysis”. I cannot take these things seriously but they are wonderful fun especially since the person who did it does not know to whom the doodling belongs.

According to the analysis it looks as tho you must face the fact that you definitely fit into the genius category…

She then encloses Bernstein’s full personality profile, which makes it hard not to project onto these vague generalities the concrete biographical particularities of the composer’s life, such as the intertwining of his professional admirations and his love interests, his identity confusion, and his musical genius — the same trick that to this day keeps horoscopes in business:

This person’s character shows a peculiar and great singleness of purpose. The sex development is practically nil and the personality which might have started to assert itself at one stage in the man’s development has become completely absorbed by career.

The career is complex. Its division is almost geometric and the line of demarcation, very clear. For each phase of the career, there is a well thought-out and deliberate development. The dark areas indicate the creative and the white areas the mechanical. The mechanical seems to dominate the subject and he is more curious about the development of it at this stage than he is about his creative development. There is one point about the career, which seems to come early in the middle life, which indicates the great peak of success. The subject will have attained a very happy balance of creation and mechanics.

The sex symbol is interesting in that the line — the only line connecting it and the rest of the personality chart — extends right to the career symbol. This indicates that the subject’s development is completely concentrated in his career. His personality symbol shows the same direction. There is no embellishment, no additions to it, there is no sign that any development of self has been accomplished. The sign connecting it with the career is merely two extensions from the sex symbol.

It is interesting to note that, in spite of the fact that the sex symbol is not developed as a physical unit, it is present and the aesthetic aspects of it will be found in this man’s career creations later in life.

This man may not be a good mathematician, but he has an excellently organized mind. It is well disciplined as demonstrated by the complete lack of extraneous matter. It is also the mind of a purist.

This man has great ego-maniacal tendencies and will often go to bizarre ends to gain a point. By nature though, he is retiring and socially shy. His great ego, however, serves as a shield against society.

A fruitful creative life is indicated, but an extremely lonely social life will be his lot.

Leonard Bernstein seated at the piano, making annotations to musical score (Photograph by Al Ravenna courtesy of The Library of Congress)

In July of 1947, a few months after the composer announced his engagement to the Costa Rican actress Felicia Cohn Montealegre, Marketa Morris revisits the question of Bernstein’s conflicted sexual identity, still raging in his dreams:

Lenny,

Your letter stirred up lots of problems.

To go into them adequately would require an elaborate paper — and that does not agree with my vacations. I try a compromise. I have to be honest in the first place. Honest and short means usually: it hurts! I have to rely on your perspicacity and your English to translate my thoughts into a good, nice, considerate English. Will you?

[…]

Of course there is a chance that we may come to some essential clarification. No way to deny it. It’s fifty fifty — and you have to know it.

In your dreams there is confusion, you are not able to go where you have to go: two simultaneous engagements or dates and so on. You are seeing Felicia and the day she leaves you have to see a boy.

The same old pattern. You can’t give up. Very eager to resume analysis but the queer fish resistance is as big a fish as your drive to get well.

[…]

Remember that you wanted to challenge people and find out whether they would still love you. … Lenny, I hope very much that you understand what I really want to convey to you! Do you?

Bernstein did — at least for a time. His engagement with Felicia was broken off in September, but they eventually married four years later, in September of 1951. Felicia wrote Leonard shortly after they married, “You are a homosexual and may never change […] I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr or sacrificing myself on the L.B. altar.” And yet, as the plethora of his letters to Felicia reveal, Bernstein really did love her profoundly — a testament to our irreconcilable, coexisting inner contradictions.

Leonard Bernstein with Felicia Bernstein and their children

But perhaps most poignant and insightful in addressing Bernstein’s dreams and his psychological tumults is this 1949 letter from Renée Nell, who relays the era’s theory of what happens while you sleep — more than half a century before modern science shed new light on the mystery — and in the process addresses the rivalry between Freud and Jung:

Dear Lenny,

Thank you for your nice letter and poem to which I have this to answer: “When the real animus and the real anima web, you can get married and take your wife to bed.”

Some short remarks on your dream: when you are unconscious (“taking a nap, sleeping”), you find that your rather undifferentiated feeling is playing tricks on you, bringing people into your psychology whom you do not want to have in there. Rather than finding out what these people really want from you, or why they were invited, you get angry at that side of yourself who played the trick on you. You get in touch with that side by hurting it, then you regret. You would know more if you would try to make her understand why you don’t want these people anymore. Then, when you do get away from the unwanted collective, you get into an even less desirable one, a very pedestrian collective (street). Being alone now, without anything but yourself, you are eager to make contact with some other side, contact in the usual average pedestrian way — sex — which is the substitute for human relationship. When you find that that is impossible you are caught in some very dull, past aspect of your own bourgeois-side. That shows very nicely why you are so eagerly seeking homosexual contact in reality, it seems the way out or the escape from the fear of being caught in bourgeois patterns, and seems to symbolize the free and non-bourgeois life. They talk about your work in the dream; your fear always seems to be that being a conductor and being set in a profession is the same as being dully married and leading a middle-class life. I am sure it could be that way, but must not be that way, and will stop to look to you that way the moment you get some real color into your life; then you can give up to the so-called “colorful life” you are leading.

Freud’s definition: Id — subconscious; Ego — conscious; Super-Ego — conscience. Ego is the whole of consciousness. Jung: has the same concept of the Ego, he terms it the center of consciousness, the difference between F[reud] and J[ung] is in the way [the] use and function of the Ego are seen. With F. it is the censor and adaptor to reality. With J. it is understood as the channel for the forces that want to flow from the inside to the outside, and vice versa, it has a consciously screening function and serves the forces of the Self or the unconscious. With F. it is supposed to master them. To F. the Ego is the human being as such, therefore it has a very high value; to J. it is an aspect of the human, subordinated to the Self, which means the unspoiled essence of the human being. The Self is to J. the highest value in a human being. I hope that does not confuse you more.

I wonder if you have enough contact with my way of analysis yet that the long distance dream-interpretation means anything to you. Generally it is difficult to get anything out of such answers in such an early stage of work; later when one is more attuned to each other it is easier. Let me know. I hope you have a fairly good time, not too many tensions.

Kindly, Renée

Bernstein soon dropped out of his sessions with Nell, but his subconscious summoned her in a dream he describes to his sister Shirley in April of the following year, noting how Nell helped shepherd his disjointed unease into a more unified direction of living:

Last night I dreamed at length that I had found her and solved our problems together. It was a hard dream, but full of richness. And, on awakening, I was desolate at the thousands of miles that still lay between us, and the grayness of doubt and not-knowing. My day-dreams are of her flying to Israel, and our being married in Jerusalem. Renée, of course, would be the uninvited fairy who would pronounce the curse. Strangely, though, I think she’d be delighted. I was not at all surprised at your news of Renée: I had always seen these things, but had always diminished their importance in the light of her values and of my affection for her. Of course, I have no intention of returning to her, or, I hope, to anyone, if I can begin really to live my life (as I can now) and not only live on the circumference of it. And, willy-nilly, Renée has helped to that point — a point where my world changes from one of abstractions and public-hungry performance to one of reality, a world of creativity, of Montealegre-Cohn, of Spanish & French and travel and rest and love and warmth and intimacy.

Leonard Bernstein conducting

Complement The Leonard Bernstein Letters, which peels away at layers upon layers of the beloved composer’s complex psychological constitution, with Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections and the science of dreams and why we have nightmares.

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05 NOVEMBER, 2013

Before I Die: A Global Ethnography of Anonymous Aspirations in Chalk and Public Space

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“Thinking about death clarifies your life.”

In early 2011, artist, designer, and TED Fellow Candy Chang, queen of thoughtful installations in public spaces that invite collaborative storytelling, covered an abandoned house in her New Orleans neighborhood in chalkboard paint and stenciled on it a grid of the deceptively simple unfinished sentence “Before I die I want to . . .,” which any passerby could complete with a piece of chalk and a personal aspiration. To Chang’s surprise, the wall was completely filled by the next day. Soon, the project took on a life of its own and was replicated in over 10 languages across more than thirty countries, giving voice to millions of such private yearnings.

Before I Die (public library) collects the best of these public yet anonymous walls, from Alaska to Australia, Brooklyn to Berlin, filled with answers ranging from the poignant (“see a year without war”) to the silly (“sleep with a harp player”) to the disarmingly honest (“repair my broken heart”). Alongside the photographs are the stories of some of the people who chalked in their anonymous answers

Chang shares the genesis of the project, her harrowing personal brush with the mortality paradox:

Joan died on a quiet August day. She was a mother to me for fifteen years. She was kind and thoughtful. She loved to garden and she taught me how to plant flowers. When I was a confused teenager, she told me to be true to myself. Her death was sudden and unexpected, and there were so many things she still wanted to do: learn to play the piano, live in Paris, and see the Pacific Ocean. I spent a long time filled with grief. Then I felt gratitude for the time we had together.

Death was always on my mind. It brought clarity to my life. It reminded me of the people I want to love well, the type of person I want to become, and the things I want to do. But I struggled to maintain this perspective. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and forget what really matters to me. I wondered if other people felt the same way.

[…]

Death is something we’re often discouraged to talk about or even think about. … Perhaps that is why it took me so long to explore these thoughts, but when I finally did, I found a comfort and clarity that I did not expect. Beyond the tragic truth of mortality lies a bright calm that reminds me of my place in the world. When I think about death, the mundane things that stress me out are reduced to their small and rightful place; the things that matter most to me become big and crisp again. … Thinking about death clarifies your life.

The book opens with the perfect amuse-bouche of wisdom by none other than Carl Sagan:

We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers.

But in a wonderfully paradoxical way, the project both embodies and counters this sentiment: The question at its heart isn’t particularly “courageous,” nor are the majority of the answers particularly “deep,” but the combination produces something profound and deeply human, and that’s precisely the point: What makes the world significant — more than that, what makes “the aggregate of our joy and suffering” significant — is perhaps the simplicity and sincerity of our answers to the simplest and most sincere of questions.

Indeed, the answers brim with seeming individual simplicity which somehow unravels the collective complexity of the human condition: World peace, curing cancer, and learning to love might not be the most original of answers, but something magical happens when anonymity strips us of the compulsion for originality and lays bare our deepest, most unoriginally human and heartfelt longings with crisp, urgent sincerity. In aggregate, they are a reminder of what truly matters — a moral lens on what should matter — as we face the immutable fact that one day, when we turn to look back on our lives, all the cleverness and pretentiousness and witticism will dissipate into dust over the burning coals of our innermost, simplest, most earnest desires for a meaningful life.

The project also inhabits — champions — another important dimension, the notion that public spaces anchor us to our physical reality and, at their best, awaken a richer relationship with our surroundings. Chang writes:

Our public spaces are as profound as we allow them to be. They are our shared spaces and reflect what matters to us as a community and as individuals. … At their greatest, our public spaces can nourish our well-being and help us see that we’re not alone as we try to make sense of our lives. They can help us grieve together and celebrate together and console one another and be alone together. Each passerby is another person full of longing, anxiety, fear, and wonder. With more ways to share in public space, the people around us can not only help us make better places, they can help us become our best selves.

Candy Chang (Photograph by Randal Ford)

And just for good measure, here is a wall on which I wrote myself hours after it was installed in Austin in March of 2013:

A beautiful and moving ethnography of aspiration, Before I Die is an enchanting reminder that we’re ephemeral and yet we matter, that we’re singular and yet united in our deepest hopes, that the simplest building blocks of our inner lives are also the most profound and eternal.

Images courtesy of Candy Chang

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